When Flesh Becomes Ornament

Chalay Chalermkraivuth

Ornamentalism by Anne Anlin Cheng, Oxford University Press, 224 pages, $29.95

Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to “immigrate” to the United States, was imported for exhibition in 1834 by brothers Nathaniel and Frederick Carne. A poster dating from 1842 proclaims, in typography by turns gaudy and sensibly serif,

“THE CHINESE LADY, AFONG MOY, Lately exhibited in Mobile, Providence, Boston, Salem, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Norfolk, Charleston, New York and New Haven, will have the honor of appearing before the Company in a splendid CHINESE SALOON, fitted up with rich Canton Satin Damask Chinese Paintings, Lanterns and Curiosities.”

An illustration depicts her smothered in an elaborate silken robe, and smothered once more in the dizzyingly intricate saloon. She appears to be one with the chinoiserie and the Canton Satin Damask Chinese Paintings behind her. Of her own flesh we see only her face, her hands, and her “ASTONISHINGLY LITTLE FEET.”[1]

The last of Moy’s traces dates from 1850; what happened to her afterwards, if anything, is unknown. But her life’s echo is heard in all the decorative Asian beauties, more ornament than person, who have been paraded about to the American public since. Denied humanity through aestheticization, the yellow woman is nevertheless no object of art—china is, after all, irremediably associated with kitsch. She lives, instead, as ornament.

There is a ready vocabulary to describe the forces at work here: objectification, on the one hand (the OED’s chipper, concise definition: “the action of degrading someone to the status of a mere object”[2]); Orientalism, on the other (“the representation of Asia … in a stereotyped way … [that embodies] a colonialist attitude”[3]). It is well-established in feminist thought that women have been considered less than human, well-established in black feminist thought that the manner of this dehumanization is splintered along racial lines (think, by comparison, of the Hottentot Venus and her fetishized flesh).

But stating this truth does not tell us its meaning or its consequences. It is one thing to identify oppressive fictions, but quite another to understand, let alone explain, the hybrid, fantastical beings—Asiatic cyborgs, porcelain dolls, geisha girls—that emerge from these strange and violent conflations.

What Anne Cheng looks to offer in her new monograph Ornamentalism is a heretofore-missing theory of Asiatic femininity. She doesn’t look to critique the confluence of racism and sexism that produces the not-quite-human, not-quite-thing that is the “yellow woman” (a term she revives to grapple with its legacy) so much as to examine what kind of being gets produced.

Where black feminist thinkers like Hortense Spillers have focused on flesh as the site of the black woman’s denigration and racialization, Cheng’s theory of the yellow woman revolves around flesh’s opposite: artifice, ornament, style. “The yellow woman … makes visible [an] unspeakable aspect of injury: its unnerving capacity to be seen as a quality of beauty and to incite appreciation. There are few figures who exemplify the beauty of abjectness more than the yellow woman,” she writes. Cheng argues that style has not been supplemental to the being of the yellow woman, but constitutive of it. And she suggests that this speaks to a broader truth: that style and artifice are always constitutive of being, and that in looking for a unified essence, an organic body, or a natural personhood, we look for the impossible.

Ornamentalism poses a challenge to the kind of personhood that canonical political philosophers—Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and William Blackstone—conceived of: a personhood characterized by freedom, autonomy, agency, and natural internal coherence. She shares this anti-humanist critique with Marxist, feminist, and critical race theorists, who have been arguing since the 20th century that humans are much less free than powerful people—who have tended to be propertied white men—have claimed they are. Her innovation is that she does not seek redemption through a return to agency, bodies, or personhood. Instead she embraces surface, excess, and non-humanity, insisting, in fact, on their centrality, and enjoining her fellow feminist and race scholars to overcome nostalgia for the flesh.

Each of Cheng’s chapters takes up a new cluster of case studies, and a new intersection of disciplines, in order to probe at the interface of personhood and objecthood. The book’s first half is devoted to humans who are produced through style. The first chapter deconstructs legal personhood through the “Case of the Twenty-Two Lewd Chinese Women,” in which twenty-two recently-arrived immigrants were conceptualized and judged through their clothing—or, more precisely, through white American men’s prurient imaginings about their clothing. The second chapter takes up, somewhat more disjointedly, Anne May Wong’s role in Piccadilly (1929) as Shosho, an objectified woman who claims her own objecthood in order to achieve aesthetic centrality.

Ornamentalism’s second half shifts into more experimental territory, to thrilling results when Cheng is most successful, and puzzling tracts when she falls short. Where the first half investigates humans produced through style, the second concerns objects that straddle and cross the border between objects and humans by invoking racial otherness. The third chapter is a stunning study of Through the Looking Glass, the Met’s exhibit of “Eastern” aesthetics and Western appropriations; the fourth is a foray into food and the border between consumer and consumed; and the fifth, a rich consideration of blockbuster representations of white-coded, feminine robots who arrogate themselves to, and are haunted by, Asiatic femininity.

Cheng describes her own method best in her description of Anna May Wong’s performance: “she commands all things around her, centrifugally pulls objects, lights, and glances to her magnetic center” (81). At her critical disposal is an improbably vast array of disciplines: celebrity studies, aesthetic philosophy, critical legal theory, photography theory, science and technology studies—just to name a few, beyond the dominant frameworks of feminist and critical race theory. Her arguments are so wide-ranging in their intellectual ancestry as to be irreducible to their parts.

And it is important that Cheng’s method is interdisciplinary, because one of the book’s premises is that part of what it means to be a yellow woman is that one is an aesthetic artifact—which is to say that, for Cheng, the study of being and the study of aesthetics are much the same. Ornamentalism, like the people and objects that populate it, is a profoundly synthetic work that finds being through assemblage. It is an act of interdisciplinary daring that is often dazzling, bearing the occasional cost of being far-fetched. And it is a redemptive reading of raced and gendered objecthood, at the occasional risk of running counter to the political goal of censuring objectification. Cheng is keen to investigate moments of yellowface and appropriation, and her theorizing is so rich and achieved as to be worth the risks attendant to readings that are not specifically condemnatory. At the same time, the specter she wards off in such moments—the specter of politics—haunts the book. We therefore hear an almost anxious refrain, in which Cheng defends her choice of redemption over skepticism: 

“If we dismiss this association between Asiatic femininity and Chinese ceramic as yet another Orientalist cliché, we miss a much more intricate and intriguing proposition: the affinity between racialization, imagined personhood, and synthetic invention.”

Perhaps there is no contradiction here. Perhaps delineating something that others would will away is complementary, not dialectical, to their efforts. After all, Ornamentalism offers itself as a solution to the political anemia of other schools of object-oriented ontology, known broadly and popularly as post-humanism. Post-humanism is a broad term indeed, encapsulating a range of critical impulses that are loosely united in their decentering of humanity. Sometimes these impulses are technological (the robots-are-coming-to-get-us school), sometimes environmental (the climate-change-is-coming-to-get-us school); either way, they frame post-humanism as a distinct moment in history when the human race’s dominance is on the brink of expiration. Which is political enough, but this trendy new post-humanism—often practiced by white scholars—conveniently forgets the roots of post-humanism in feminist and critical race theory, which has long since worked to question liberal humanist ideology by bringing to light histories of dehumanization. Ornamentalism unites the turn towards non-human things with the older tradition of post-humanism by pointing to ways in which humans are constructed through things, and things comes to life—or don’t—through “the conduit of racial meaning.” It therefore historicizes future-oriented, ahistorical post-humanism, and reconciles it with its raced and gendered past. 

But one problem with post-humanism’s politics persists: its treatment of agency. A rejection of liberal humanism is a rejection, in part, of the traditional conception of agency. But to abandon traditional agency without offering an alternative is to abandon political action. Take Marxist anti-humanism, which, at its extreme, totally denied the existence of human agency, displacing the motion of history onto structural forces. The malaise of determinism makes political action look naïve.

Racial post-humanism suggests that agency is not desirable, because it occurs only in a world whose existence we do not want to prolong, a world that has worked to eliminate other worlds and subjugate the life found therein: native communities, raced populations, non-human species. It looks, instead, at life that has appeared non-agential—in the form of flesh, spirit, animal, plant, or cyborg—and suggests that we cultivate that life, care for it, permit its endurance, if not its flourishing. This is a beautiful thought, a world-loving thought. But what is the actual practice of post-humanism?

Cheng’s image of ornamentalism as practice arrives in the monograph’s epilogue, in which she discusses the character of Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Sethe’s lacerated back is on the one hand “dead,” on the other a “chokecherry.” In her, Cheng finds “an alternative form of ontology, one entwined with dirt, soil, and death.” She ends on a singingly eloquent note of redemption as found through ornament:

“The flesh that passes through objecthood needs ‘ornament’ as a way back to itself. Even Baby Suggs’s much-quoted sermon, which so passionately urges a return to the flesh, understands that self-possession has to be courted … This is why her song is also a blazon of body parts: ‘backs that need support; shoulders that need arms … love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it, and hold it up” … Here the instructions for loving the ‘natural’ body articulate this poignant and melancholic gesture of almost orthopedic reconstruction, of carefully tacking a scaffold of the body as a prop for one’s psyche.”

 Cheng’s opening critique of feminist theory—that it occupies itself too much with the flesh—comes full circle here: flesh is ornament, and requires the ornamental practices of synthesis and assemblage in order to put itself back together again. To put this in more familiar terms: one returns to the body with (self-)care. At its best, Ornamentalism offers an alternative vision of agency as not resistance but resilience, of forms of living produced under impossible conditions—providing, too, a much-needed concretization of post-humanism’s rhetorical gestures.

 But if flesh may find itself through ornamental practices, how might ornament find itself? Cheng dismisses, after all, nostalgia for the flesh, so there is nothing for the yellow woman to return to, no enfleshment to crave. Of course, her work has partly been to deconstruct the distinction between flesh and ornament, but the fluidity between the two seems to be one-way. Here Cheng’s effervescent work registers the limitations of its own framework: the figure around whom ornamentalist ontology is built does not stand to recover through it. Furthermore, because the book is in no sense about real Asian women, it does not speak to our lives, spectral or otherwise, an effect exacerbated by the book’s near-exclusive concern with ravaged beauty and East Asian aesthetics—itself powerful and hegemonic in the age of East Asian economic and geopolitical dominance. It may be telling that the subject of the book’s most redemptive treatment of a yellow woman, Shosho, is an exceedingly beautiful celebrity.

 What may we who carry flesh do with this work? For us, “corporeal dematerialization” cannot be literal, so for what is it a metaphor? And: if Asiatic femininity is style, when do Asian women—and which Asian women—get to wear it?

 It was not Cheng’s intent to address these questions: as she explicates in the preface, “This … is not a manual that teaches Asian and Asian American women how to act. But by tracing the complex dynamics between subjecthood and objecthood, we might begin to shake loose some of our most fundamental assumptions about what kind of person, what kind of injury, or indeed, what kind of life can count.” Her work, which teaches us how to think about shadowy, complex, uncomfortable figures, is complementary to activism, not activism itself.

 But the theory of Asiatic femininity she has forwarded so boldly is incomplete without an audience that isn’t just scholarly, without an address to a public community. Such is the flaw of post-humanism in practice: as crucial as it is and has been to trouble traditional notions of the human, post-humanist work can fail to make a distinction between “human” as academic byword for Lockeian-liberal-humanism and “human” as a common word for real people. To call anti- or post-humanism literally anti-human is, in an important sense, to talk past its historical formation; it is, in another sense, to pinpoint a deadly flaw in its evolution, during which the original referent of “human” has been partially obscured in a scholarly haze. Post-humanist works point to the necessity of deep care for all forms of life, interconnected as they are, and for marginalized forms more than others. If they lose sight of the marginalized communities to which they are theoretically and ethically indebted, then the point is lost.

 Cheng has historicized and politicized post-humanism, but to be practicable, post-humanism must make good on its promises to the humans in our midst.


[1] “FOR ONE WEEK ONLY, (Owing to other engagements.) Unprecedented Attraction...,” 1842, American Broadsides and Ephemera, series 1, no. 6010. 10F45405EC316290.

[2] “objectification, n.2”. OED Online. March 2019. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/129623?redirectedFrom=objectification#eid. Accessed Feb 18, 2019.

[3] “orientalism, n.3”. OED Online. March 2019. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/132531?redirectedFrom=orientalism#eid. Accessed Feb 18, 2019.